‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ by Elliot Perlman (Review)

April 2013 has been designated by Kim, over at Reading Matters, as Australian Literature Month, and as I’ve neglected books from my adopted home country over the past couple of years, I thought it was time to join in the fun 🙂  Rather than try out something new though, I decided to revisit one of my favourite Aussie writers – and his best book.  This is a modern classic, and it takes place right here in my home town…

Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity is a 600-page novel set in 1990s Melbourne.  It’s an ambitious work written in seven parts, each narrated by a different voice, and it centres on Simon Heywood, a depressed former primary school teacher.  Simon, a man of great intelligence, empathy and charisma, is unable to function normally after a child in his care disappeared, and his father employs psychologist Alex Klima to try to snap him out of it.

After initial misgivings, Alex becomes closer to Simon, treating him more like a friend than a patientWith the help of Angelique, a prostitute who has also fallen for Simon’s charms, he attempts to drag Simon up from the depths of his despair.  It’s not quite that easy though – at the end of the first part, Simon snaps and does the unthinkable…

The problem is the object of Simon’s obsession, his university girlfriend Anna.  He has never been able to get over their relationship, and she remains the idealised perfect woman.  There is an unhealthy obsession here, one he is unable to get rid of.  As he explains to Alex…

“Listen – all that she was then, all that she is now, those gestures, everything I remember but won’t or can’t articulate anymore, the perfect words that are somehow made imperfect when used to describe her and all that should remain unsaid about her – it is all unsupported by reason.  I know that.  But that enigmatic calm that attaches itself to people in the presence of reason – it’s something from which I haven’t been able to take comfort, not reliably, not since her.”p.8 (Picador, 2004)

Unhappily married with a son, Anna is unaware of what is happening to Simon.  Until, that is, Simon kidnaps her son, Sam…

The set-up is probably good enough for a book as it is, but Seven Types of Ambiguity is far more than a simple story about a kidnapping.  As in another recent Australian novel (Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap), this one event provides the backdrop for a look at society.  It consists of a series of lengthy first-person narratives, moving backwards and forwards, examining events from other perspectives.  It’s also brutally, painfully honest.

What’s it all about?  Well, while it has  a lot to say about the nature of obsession, its main focus is on an uncaring society.  Perlman explores the stigma attached to mental health, contrasting the ideal of a caring ethos with the stark reality of the triumph of the ‘free’ market.  You see, 1990s Australia is a dog-eat-dog world – a cold wind’s a blowin’…

“It’s the times.  The times, they have changed.  Where once people were told that the answers were blowing in the wind, now it’s they who are blown by the wind, the wind generated by the market.  The ruthless pursuit of the bottom line is the siren song of the times and the song is played over the public address system in banks, in stores and supermarkets.  It’s played when you are downsized because your company can replace you with somebody in another country for two dollars a day.  And it’s played whenever you call up anywhere needing assistance and they put you on hold because they’ve cut back on staff in order to increase their share price.” (p.163)

Simon’s rant about Neo-liberal philosophies are very a much a sign of their time – but somehow, it all sounds strangely familiar…

The old cry of ‘turn on, tune out’ is appropriate for a generation of apathy, a picture which is deftly painted over the course of the novel.  There is a media obsession with trivialities, witch-hunts and trial by soundbite.  By contrast, Alex’s crusade against the introduction of US-style ‘managed care’ is seen as more Quixotic than realistic.  There’s an overwhelming sense of a drive towards conformity: no divorce (no matter how bad the marriage), the childishness of the corporate retreat, even the look-the-other-way culture of the prison Simon finds himself in.  Freedom, though, is in short supply.  Simon and Alex rage against it all – and they’re the mad ones?

As noted above, Seven Types of Ambiguity has a lot in common with The Slap, quite apart from its Melbourne setting.  Both use multiple points of view to give a wider perspective of a particular community, and both take one pivotal event and explore the repercussions of disturbing the status quo.  Where they differ is in the writing, and in the type of people the authors take as their guinea pigs.  Tsiolkas concentrates on a lower social group and is much more visceral in his writing, and some people have criticised Perlman for what they see as a more middle-class elitist story. I’d have to say that I prefer Perlman’s style – and his story.

The key to it all is Perlman’s portrayal of Simon, and the two pictures of Anna (the ideal and the flawed).  If Simon doesn’t come across as someone worth empathising with (and, lest we forget, he did kidnap a child), then the whole novel will fall apart – the story relies on the reader understanding and forgiving Simon.  Fortunately, for me at least, Simon is a sympathetic figure, a man who understands and feels too much.  There’s even a temptation to see him as a kind of Christ figure, humane and sympathetic amongst the madness and greed of the modern world.  Oh – and he has a lot of suffering in store…

The title of the novel comes from linguist and literary critic William Empson’s work of the same name.  Empson’s book explains how the beauty of poetry stems from seven types of linguistic ambiguity, and naturally it is a book the erudite Simon adores (he even named his dog Empson).  Like Simon, Empson was a bit of a Wunderkind, having written his landmark work in early twenties.  Also like Simon, he was destined to be taken down by societal prejudices; after a servant found a condom in his university rooms, he was banished from the city.  Unlike Simon though, Empson was encouraged in his pursuits, enabling him to achieve his work.  Simon’s parents are not quite so supportive of their poetry-loving son.

As important as the linguistic ambiguities are though, Alex stresses another type of ambiguity.  In his eyes, it is the ambiguity of human relationships which is more important, the cause of most of the problems in the novel:

“As far as I was concerned, there were more important ambiguities than the ambiguities of poetic language that Empson talked about.  There’s the ambiguity of human relationships, for instance.  A relationship between two people, just like a sequence of words, is ambiguous if it is open to different interpretations.  And if two people do have different views about their relationship – I don’t just mean about its state, I mean about its very nature – then that difference can affect the entire course of their lives.” (p.12)

Perlman goes on to demonstrate this throughout Seven Types of Ambiguity, when the same event is shown through two, or sometimes three, pairs of eyes, allowing the reader to see why events occur as they do.  Relationship can indeed be ambiguous – but so can stories…

Anyone who has made it this far in my tortured review will long have come to the conclusion that I’m a bit of a fan of Perlman’s work, and this is easily the novel I like most.  It’s very much a story of a certain time and place, yet it’s one which is also relevant today.  In fact, while reading this novel, a raft of welfare ‘reforms’ were passed in the UK, among them plans which would effectively end the National Health Service in its present form.  In that context, Perlman’s description of the move to managed care is a scarily eery one…


18 thoughts on “‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ by Elliot Perlman (Review)

  1. How nice to see a comprehensive review of this wonderful work: unfortunately I read it too long ago myself to have a review of it on my blog.
    I'm a big fan of Perlman's too, I like the way his novels critique our society from a big picture PoV.
    I'll put a link to this on my Meet an Aussie Author: Elliot Perlman page.


  2. This is a great review, Tony. I read it long before The Slap, so it's interesting to see your comparisons with that novel. I like the big picture view both novels take.

    When I read Seven Types of Ambiguity it was an eye-opener for me — it was the first contemporary Australian novel I'd read that wasn't set in convict times (!!) and the first I'd read that was set in the Melbourne I knew and loved (at about the time I was living there). It was the book that I would say rekindled my love affair with Australian lit after a long time where I just didn't bother reading it.


  3. Lisa – It is a great book, one which takes a good hard look at society and asks if it's all worth it. Can't wait for his next book (if and when it arrives…).


  4. Jackie – Good as 'The Street Sweeper' is, I prefer this one. It would be interesting to hear the view of someone who doesn't live in Melbourne though 😉


  5. Kim – A lot of people like the bush sagas or First-Fleet tales (and I'll have one of those next week…), but I prefer more contemporary Australian stories, especially when they're as good as this. As for 'The Slap', it's a comparison which came to me when I was thnking about my review, and I think they are very similar books – one just has a bit more swearing 😉


  6. Reading your review of this novel has been a wonderful trip down memory lane Tony. When I read this years ago, well before my blog, it was a real eye-opener for me as to the difference between good fiction and high quality literature – this obviously being the latter.


  7. I am really late to your review, apologies, but I am keen to read this one and glad to hear how good it is. I loved The Street Sweeper, he is a wonderful writer.


  8. Lindsay – Better late than never 😉 I may be a bit biased (it is set in Melbourne…), but I prefer this one to 'The Street Sweeper'. That was great too, but this one spoke to me a lot more, and I'm more likely to read this again before I get back to 'The Street Sweeper'…


  9. Fascinating review, Tony! I read Perlman's 'Three Dollars' sometime back and liked it very much. Now I want to read 'Seven Types of Ambiguity'. Thanks for this beautiful detailed review.


  10. My name is Jackie also and I live in the Chicago area (far from Melbourne) 🙂 Just finished 7 Types and will be sharing it with my bookcrossing.com friends here. I really got sucked in to this book. I wanted to know all the tiny details that weren't mentioned. How old was the dog when it met it's new family? Did they ever find Carlos? Where is Sam?


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